[27 May 2009]
Before I begin reviewing Emily Fox Gordon’s delightful academic satire, partial disclosure is in order: for the past nine years, I have worked as an administrator at a large state university in Northern California. I have, in fact, spent my entire adult life working in academia. This predisposes me to adore books that take on the university. But before those of you safely escaped from the Ivory Tower roll your eyes at the prospect of yet another academic novel, consider Stephen King’s comment, from On Writing:
People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do. If you’re a plumber who enjoys science fiction, you might well consider a novel about a plumber aboard a starship or an alien planet.
So consider Emily Fox Gordon’s take on work, here the fictional Lola Dees University in Spangler, Texas. Fox teaches writing at Rice University, and like Jane Smiley before her, has been paying keen attention to the goings-on of the academic community. Nobody escapes Fox’s notice—faculty, students, staff, their families—all take a turn beneath her skewering pen.
Lola Dees—Loladees or Lola, to its faculty and students—houses Ben Blau, professor and Chair of Philosophy, and his discontented wife, Ruth. Ruth was once a writer of small note, author of the academic trilogy Getting Good. But the birth of her son Isaac put a halt to writing, and by the time he reaches dysfunctional adulthood, Ruth has a massive case of writer’s block. She medicates her boredom and rage with too much alcohol.
Ben is a good man, well-meaning if a bit befuddled, as suits a philosopher. He doesn’t want to be Chair, but his idiosyncratic colleagues are too addled for the task. With the quiet help of Dolores, the indispensable department secretary, he endeavors to keep Philosophy out of trouble. But this is all but impossible. With the arrival of a new university president, one Lee Wayne Dreddle, Loladees is being shaken up. Dean Roberta Mitten-Kurz, obese and majestic in her expensive clothing and silver jewelry, is a willing mouthpiece for Dreddle’s prattle, ruling her small Humanities empire with a pair of dogs at her feet.
And Dean Mitten-Kurz is piqued: Philosophy doesn’t participate in enough of the Humanities Committees; the department is too reserved, refusing to cross-list their courses or engage in “interdisciplinary dialogue” with other departments. Citing Dreddle’s “employee rotation policy”m the Dean is moving Dolores from Philosophy to Sociology, saddling Ben with the incompetent, foul-mouthed Hayley Gamache, who takes multiple cigarette breaks, spends most of her day screaming at her kids via cell phone, and decorates the her desk with fairies, turning the office into a horrible, glittering plastic forest. In short order Hayley undoes all of Dolores’s work, refusing to untangle classroom reservations (i.e., a class of 60 shoehorned into a room for 20), ignoring the paperwork necessary to ensure the grad students have health insurance, and fighting with Rhoda, the saintly work-study student. (Oh, wince, wince.)
Ruth, meanwhile, spends her days adrift, worrying about the mentally ill Isaac, now homeless and refusing all parental contact, save the money received through his therapist, Eusebio Martinez. The other faculty wives seem so much happier, their children so accomplished. The Bachmans have four children, no television set, and play classical instruments. Daphne Porter lives in a perfect house, complete with heirloom roses, an herb garden, and photos of her three successful daughters on a silver tray. Fran Tevis is a potter and jewelry maker whose son Malcolm, Isaac’s last normal friend, is clerking for a judge.
Enter Ricia Spottiswode and her husband, Charles Johns. Ricia—short for Patricia—is a noted memoirist. Charles, her muse and protector, is an intellectual dabbler. In a great intellectual coup, the Lola English department has hired Ricia as writer in residence. But Ricia’s acceptance is contingent on Charles being offered a post as well; Dean Mitten Kurz delegates this to Ben, who finds Charles a lectureship.
Tiny, migraine-prone, given to floaty, short skirts, the redheaded Ricia is a dead-on stereotype of the emotionally frail memoirist. Charles, conversely, is an enormously overweight man with a Basso Profundo voice and jolly manner. His primary job, by his own admission, is to shield Ricia from her rabid fans.
Ruth is one such fan—torn between jealousy and admiration, she longs to meet Ricia. She hopes for her chance when hosting the annual new semester potluck, but it isn’t to be. Moments before the party, Eusebio Martinez telephones with disturbing news: after two years without contact, Isaac wants to see his parents. Martinez is deliberately vague, unsettling Ruth and Ben just in time for the guests to arrive.
When Charles appears alone, apologetic—Ricia has a migraine—Ruth becomes staggeringly drunk, topping a disastrous evening by mouthing off at Dean Mitten-Kurz. Her punishment is an invitation to help craft the University’s new mission statement, which is to be assembled by “mission statement task forces” comprised of various artists associated with the Loladees community. The resulting “mission statement text” will then be fashioned into “a colorful quilt” by “local artisans,” which will then be hung in the new student commons building.
Ruth is horrified but complies, meeting with a group unified more by acrimony than any investment in “community”.
Ridiculously amusing, yes. Unrealistic? No. My employers recently did something analogous with photographs of the “University Community”. In an environment of pay freezes, layoffs, and the looming threat of pay cuts, many of us wondered where the money for this “morale builder” came from. Loladees escapes this fate, but nothing can save them from themselves, or the vibrant idiocy of Lee Wayne Dreddle’s ideas: “ ... the application of behavioral psychology in the classroom and the boardroom, the management of change, and the development of motivational techniques in academic and corporate settings”.
Ben does his best to duck Dreddle’s garbage, but an outburst from Charles Johns soon shatters the fragile peace. Unbeknownst to Johns, Loladees is being accosted by accreditors, who reserve the right to spontaneously audit courses. Enraged by an uninvited interloper, Johns physically removes the man from his classroom, touching off both an academic firestorm and, for some of us, a wonderful sense of vicarious revenge.
While the university reels, Ricia agrees to meet Ruth in a coffeehouse to discuss Whole Lives Devoured, Ruth’s much overworked manuscript. Ricia’s simple response: “I didn’t like it,” sets a surprising scene in motion, one that changes our feelings about Ricia while throwing Ruth a desperately needed lifeline.
As the book draws toward a close, a Katrina-like storm is gathering strength, heading straight for Spangler, Texas. Residents are encouraged to seek shelter at Loladees. So it is that Ben and Ruth find themselves mingling with the University Community—in Horace Dees Hall, built to withstand a category four hurricane. It is here, as trees are ripped up and windows shattered, that Ben and Ruth have a reunion, of sorts, with Isaac.
Deadly funny, It Will Come to Me is immensely enjoyable, a welcome addition to a genre some of us cannot get enough of. More importantly, It Will Come to Me speaks to larger issues of power, the strains mental illness place on families, and despite everything, the possibility of redemption.